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Management of Llamas and Alpacas


Llamas and alpacas are adaptable to a wide climatic range and have been successfully raised in regions with winter temperatures as low as –20°C (–4° F) if reasonable wind shelter is provided. Heat stress is a significant problem if animals have moderate to heavy fiber coats and are subjected to high temperature and humidity. Shearing, leaving remaining fiber at least 2 cm long to prevent sunburns, and providing access to shade and sufficient water usually allow SACs to handle moderately high temperature and humidity. Air conditioning, misters, and damp sand pits are helpful to maintain heavy fiber coats in warm, humid climates. Llamas and alpacas can adapt well to damp climates as long as the temperature does not get too high, and few problems of either footrot or “rain scald” are encountered.

Llamas and alpacas can be housed with other species, including sheep, goats, and horses. Individual llamas (ideally geldings) have been successfully used as guard animals with sheep flocks and goat herds. Llamas and alpacas are herd animals and do poorly if isolated from cohorts or other animals; ill animals should be housed with herdmates if appropriate. If sufficient space is available, large groups of males (or females) can be pastured together. In the presence of nonpregnant females, however, intact males and recently castrated geldings will commonly spend much of their time fighting, typically biting at the ears, neck, and scrotum. Llamas and alpacas generally do not destroy fences and can usually be confined behind a 1.5-m or 1.2-m fence, respectively. Barbed wire is not needed for containment, and electric fences have been successfully used.

A somewhat unique behavioral characteristic of SACs is the use of communal dung piles. Animals urinate and defecate on the same pile, with favorite sites being in the depths of barns and other inconvenient locations. Normal feces are pelleted and firm. Unless forage becomes very limited, animals will not graze in areas around or downstream from dung piles. The urethral diameter in both males and females is relatively small, and the process of urination takes much longer than in other species of comparable size.

Table 1

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Llamas and alpacas are highly trainable, and most animals can be easily taught to come into a barn or corral for food. An arm around the base of the neck and another arm holding the tail or flank region on the opposite side can restrain many animals. Halter-trained SACs can be easily led into a smaller area for examination and treatment. Specially designed llama chutes should be used for reproductive examinations and other potentially uncomfortable procedures. In contrast, alpacas respond better to most procedures if assistants, and not restraint chutes, are used to hold the animals. With both llamas and alpacas, it is particularly important to maintain control of the animal's head. The neck is very muscular and can move with amazing speed. Sedation is not needed for most procedures. A small catch pen crowded with animals will afford adequate control to administer injections and perform body condition scoring.

Mature males, and most females during midgestation, will maintain appropriate body condition on 10%–14% crude protein grass hay with total digestible nutrients (TDN) of 50%–55%. Late gestation and heavily lactating females require a slightly higher percentage of crude protein and TDN of 60%–65%. Under basal conditions, most camelids eat 1.8%–2% of body wt/day on a dry-matter basis. Legumes are usually not needed and may contribute to obesity. Palpating the amount of tissue over the lumbar vertebrae and ribs can best assess body condition. Body condition is generally scored from 1 (thin) to 9 (fat), with 5 being ideal.

Seasonal vitamin D deficiency, characterized by diminished growth, angular limb deformities, kyphosis, and a reluctance to move, can be a problem in heavily fibered animals raised in regions with poor sun exposure during winter months. The problem is most severe in rapidly growing, fall-born crias. Serum phosphorus of <3 mg/dL, a calcium:phosphorus ratio of >3:1, and vitamin D concentrations of <15 nmol/L in crias <6 mo old are diagnostic. Normal phosphorus and vitamin D concentrations in this age group are 6.5–9 mg/dL and >50 nmol/L, respectively.

To date, there does not appear to be a nutritional justification for routinely incorporating ionophores into the diet of camelids. However, because pelleted or mixed-grain feeds intended for camelid consumption may be formulated in the same facilities that handle ionophores, camelid feed has been accidentally contaminated. Such an incident resulted in a high incidence of death, and other health compromises to animals exposed during the period of consumption are not fully known. Routine and effective purging of feed milling facilities should allow for production of camelid feed without contamination; however, human error and equipment failure can still compromise any feed product.

Copper toxicity is a much greater concern than copper deficiency in camelids. Although there is a requirement for copper in camelid diets, mistakes in formulation and use of multiple supplements without full knowledge of total copper intake has resulted in toxicity. Most reported cases of toxicity have been due to chronic intake rather than acute deaths.

There are several options for sedation and anesthesia of camelids (see Table: Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and AlpacasTables). Generally, alpacas require more drug than llamas to achieve the same results. For short procedures, it is usually not necessary to withhold food and water; however, when deemed necessary, both should be withheld at the same time, reducing the tendency to regurgitate.

Xylazine can be used for sedation without recumbency. Higher dosages will result in recumbency and provide a light plane of anesthesia for 20–30 min. Simultaneous administration of xylazine, ketamine, and butorphanol usually provides 20–30 min of recumbent restraint. Butorphanol can provide sedation of short duration and is especially useful for head, ear, and dental procedures.

Llamas and alpacas tolerate general anesthesia well and usually do not require tranquilization before induction. Induction and maintenance of anesthesia is similar to that in other domestic species; however, tracheal intubation requires some practice.

Hematology and clinical chemistries are similar to those in other species, with a few significant differences. Camelid RBCs are relatively small and elliptical and may produce anomalous results when evaluated using an automated cell counter. Normal PCV is 27%–45%, normal RBC numbers are 10.1–17.3 × 106/μL, and normal WBC counts are 8,000–21,400/μL.

Basal glucose concentrations in llamas and alpacas are more typical of monogastric species than ruminants. Basal levels are 82–160 mg/dL, but glucose levels >300 mg/dL are common after stressful events. For additional hematologic and serum biochemical reference ranges, see Table: Hematologic Reference RangesTables and see Serum Biochemical Reference RangesTables.

No drugs are currently approved for use in llamas and alpacas, so all use is extra-label. SACs in North America have the potential to be food animals, making drug withdrawal time a consideration. See Selected Drugs Used in Llamas and AlpacasTables for antibiotics that have been used for treatment of sensitive bacteria in SACs.

Although drug use in exotic species is commonly based on approaches used in other species and often has favorable results, adverse outcomes have prevailed with numerous drugs in camelids.

Camelids are prone to lidocaine toxicity, so its use should be minimized. If deemed necessary, lidocaine should be diluted to 0.5% and used sparingly; the total dose should not exceed 4 mg/kg (1 mL of 2% lidocaine/5 kg). Lidocaine toxicity is characterized by lethargy, ataxia, slow and labored breathing, weakness, hypotension, and diminished response to stimuli. Diazepam should be available and administered at 0.1–0.5 mg/kg in case of lidocaine toxicity.

Although dexamethasone is used in other animals to stimulate surfactant activity in fetal lungs, as little as 0.5 mg in pregnant camelids has consistently caused fetal death and complications, including retained placenta and uterine prolapse. Virtually any steroid-containing product that a female camelid comes in contact with, especially during the third trimester, will cause abortion. Even a cria with steroid cream on the muzzle nursing a dam has caused abortion.

Tilmicosin has caused enough deaths in camelids to warrant the recommendation that it should not be used in these species. The cardiovascular system is the target of toxicity, which may be due to calcium channel blockade.

The prolonged-release form of ceftiofur has produced neurologic changes, including blindness. IV administration should be avoided. However, many camelids have been successfully treated SC without problems.

Normally used to reverse xylazine sedation, tolazoline has produced severe signs, including initially anxiety, hyperesthesia, profuse salivation, and tachypnea. Convulsions, hypotension, and GI hypermotility resulting in diarrhea also develop. Doses >2 mg/kg are incriminated, as well as too rapid IV administration. Because death has also resulted after administration of tolazoline, use of yohimbine is likely a better approach.

Dinoprost tromethamine (prostaglandin F) use in camelids has often resulted in rapid death, likely due to bronchiolar constriction and pulmonary edema.

Leptospirosis 5-way killed vaccine has caused type 2 hypersensitivity and anaphylaxis in camelids. Similar reactions have been reported occasionally in cattle and swine, so it is likely that sensitivity will increase in camelid herds in which vaccination against leptospirosis is indicated.

Atropine, whether administered locally in the eye or parenterally, has resulted in pupillary dilation observed to persist in camelids for as long as a week. Treated animals must be kept out of direct sunlight until pupillary response is normal.

Camelids have relatively thin skin, and use of topical eprinomectin can result in dermatitis and blisters.

After a llama herd was treated for biting lice with topical permethrin 10%, some animals were observed to be breathing hard and drooling; recovery was uneventful.

Although numerous potential adverse effects from therapeutic use of trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole have been reported in the literature, it appears that acute death after IV administration is rare. The rate of administration or existing condition being treated may be a predisposing factor in the outcome.

Commonly and immediately after camelids are injected with B-complex vitamins or levamisole, they demonstrate signs of hyperexcitement and itching. In the case of multiple procedures or administration of several injections, those anticipated to sting should be done last.

Last full review/revision September 2014 by LaRue W. Johnson, DVM, PhD

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